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The Lord speaks in mysterious ways, and on January 1, 1990, he spoke to Fontella Bass through a television commercial. Bass, at 54, was at the lowest ebb in her life. Twenty-five years after her No. 1 R&B single "Rescue Me” had found its place in music history, she bad no career to speak of. Her four children were grown or in college, and she had strayed far from the church where she had started singing gospel as a child. She was broke, tired and cold; the only heat in her house came from the gas stove in the kitchen. "I said a long prayer," Bass recalls. "I said, 'I need to see a sign to continue on.' And all of a sudden on the TV I heard... 'Rescue Me'." Unbeknownst to her, American Express was using Bass' song on a TV commercial. "It was if the Lord had stepped right into my world!" she says. "I looked around and got my back royalties. I started to go to church every Sunday. And that's what saved me."' (1)
Bass was born in 1940 in Saint Louis, Missouri into a musical family. She was the daughter of gospel singer Martha Bass, granddaughter of gospel singer Nevada Carter, and the older sister of singer David Peaston. “My grandmother was a singer and all her children were musicians—my mother and all of my uncles—so that’s how I got into it. All gospel, and they’re still in the gospel world today.” (2)
When her mother was on tour with the Clara Ward Singers during the 1940s and '50s, Fontella, who was a piano child prodigy at five years old, began performing in St. Louis with her grandmother. “At five I was gigging. I was playing all the mortuaries, funeral homes. And if I was good, I got paid ten dollars. You know, in 1945-46, ten dollars was a lot of money for a five-year-old.” (2)
By the time Fontella was ten, she went on tour with her mother and grandmother during the summer months. “After she left Clara Ward, my mother used to go through Georgia, Texas, and the Southern states. I went with her and played piano. It was three generations: grandmother, mother and granddaughter. We all performed different segments.” She toured with her family until the age of 16. “We travelled by train and if you were 12 or under, you didn’t have to pay. When I couldn’t pass for 12 anymore . . . that was it.” (2)
Back in St. Louis during her teenage years, Fontella played the organ and piano at various church functions. “My grandmother was very hard-core, you know, they didn’t [even] want me to listen to rock 'n’ roll on the radio,” Fontella recalled. In spite of the restrictions, she was exposed to secular music and all that went with it. “My grandfather and two of my mother’s brothers used to go out to all of the blues places. They would sneak me out of the window and I would be gone all night, till six and seven in the morning. They’d send a note up and I’d go up and play. And then they would sneak me back in the house . . . they did it for years." (2)
Fontella in 1966.
Photo courtesy of Popperfoto/Getty Images.
She began singing R&B songs at local contests and fairs while attending Soldan High School from which she graduated in 1958. Without telling her mother, she played piano for a group called J.C. Story & His All-Stars. At 17, she started her professional career working at the Showboat Club near Chain of Rocks, Missouri. (3)
In 1961, she auditioned on a girlfriend’s dare for the Leon Claxton carnival show and was hired to play piano and sing in the chorus for two weeks, making $175 per week for the two weeks it was in town. She wanted to go on tour with Claxton but her mother refused and according to Bass "... she literally dragged me off the train. And now, I'm glad she did,'' Bass said, ''because having been raised in the church, there was a lot of life I didn't know about.'' Her appearance with Claxton led to Little Milton, another St. Louis singer, and his bandleader Oliver Sain, owner of St. Louis-based Bobbin Records, to hire her to back Little Milton on piano for concerts and recordings. (4)
Bass originally only played piano with the band, but one night Milton didn't show up on time so Sain asked her to sing and she was soon given her own featured vocal spot in the show. “One night Milton got a little too full of scotch to sing and Oliver asked me. And I just never stopped,” she recalled. (3)
Supplementing her income with session work in the early 1960s on Sain’s Bobbin label, she appeared on recordings by Albert King and Muddy Waters. Fontella eventually cut four sides for Sain including I Don’t Hurt Anymore that was released in early 1962 and Honey Bee that followed a short time later. (5)
Little Milton bolted for Chicago when he was offered a recording deal with Chess Records. Oliver Sain packaged his revue with Bass, singer Bobby McClure and trumpet player Lester Bowie. Within a few years, Bass married Bowie and quit the Sain Review over a dispute concerning her work in other venues. In 1965, she moved with Bowie to Chicago where he was putting together what would become the Art Ensemble Of Chicago. Meanwhile, Bass met the Chess Brothers and was signed to a contract to perform on their subsidiary, Checker Records.
The story becomes clouded when Sain and McClure make their way to Chicago and Chess Records. Chess Records purchased Bobbin’s inventory according to one source and one assumes Sain and McClure were part of the deal. (6) Another source mentions that “Sain then escorted Bass and R&B crooner Bobby McClure to Chicago” where a deal was consummated with Bass and McClure signed to Chess contracts. (7)
Photo courtesy of Chess Records.
Nevertheless, Bass and McClure hit the charts with a Sain-penned duet, Don’t Mess Up A Good Thing. The song entered the R&B and Pop chart on February 6, 1965 where it topped at #5 R&B and #33 Pop. The song was followed by another duet, You’ll Miss Me (When I’m Gone) in the summer with mild success as it reached #27 R&B and #91 Pop. (8) (9) Disagreements over financial and "who should get top billing" issues caused a breakup. Sain's controlling nature where the two were concerned was also a factor. Fontella hired a singer to take McClure's place at live shows and prepared for her first solo outing with Checker Records. (5)
Her third try for Checker included the A-side written by Sain, The Soul Of A Man. The label needed a B-side when Fontella showed up for a jam session at the studios on one August 1965 weekend with Chess staff writers, Carl William Smith and Raynard Miner, her manager at the time, Billy Davis and arranger Phil Wright. Bass recalled the day to People magazine writer Steve Dougherty, "One day I stopped by the studio and Raynard was in the rehearsal room. We made up the whole thing, lyrics and everything on the spot. I played rhythm piano and sang the melody lines." (10)
The session included a number of top Chicago musicians with a pre-Earth, Wind, and Fire Maurice White on drums and Louis Satterfield on bass, Leonard Caston on piano, Sonny Thompson on organ and Pete Cosey and Gerald Sims on guitars. Gene Barge led the powerful horn section, while future Loving You singer Minnie Riperton joined on backing vocals. (7)
According to Bass, the song was recorded in three takes. The opening bass line, prominent brass arrangement and vocal hook were all ingredients for a hit record. But the song had one more unintentional element going for it: She hummed in place of singing at the end after dropping the lyric sheet on the floor. (5) "'When we were recording that, I forgot some of the words,'' she told the New York Times in 1989. ''Back then, you didn't stop while the tape was running, and I remembered from the church what to do if you forget the words. I sang, 'Ummm, ummm, ummm,' and it worked out just fine.'' (4)
The cut also ended in a novel way. Instead of having the engineer fade the song in a more traditional manner, producer Davis walked around the studio floor while the musicians were laying down their tracks and tapped each musician on the shoulder when he wanted him to stop playing, so the instruments came out individually. (11)
She told Dougherty, "I was so excited about that song. I told all my friends, 'I think this is the one.' The record came out, and my name was not on the sleeve (as co-writer). And when I asked about it, (the people at the record company) told me, 'Don't worry, we're gonna change that.' But they never did." As a result, the only songwriting royalty Bass received for the song was $11,000. (10) "I had the first million seller for Chess since Chuck Berry about 10 years before," she told the author David Nathan. "Things were riding high for them, but when it came time to collect my first royalty check, I looked at it, saw how little it was, tore it up and threw it back across the desk." (6)
When the A-side The Soul Of A Man failed to excite program directors, they flipped the disc over and discovered gold. Rescue Me entered the R&B chart on September 25th and perched at #1 for four weeks. (8) A week later, it posted on the Pop chart where it stayed for 13 weeks reaching #4. (9)
Photo courtesy of Chess Records.
Using the same formula, Checker released a follow-up Recovery to a lukewarm response. Two more lackluster singles were released by Checker and before the end of 1966, Fontella Bass became a pop music memory.
Her only album with Chess, The New Look, sold reasonably well, but Bass soon became disillusioned with Chess and decided to leave the label in 1967 after only two years. "I was at the height of my career, yet I had no say over what I was supposed to do," she said. (6) She continued to fight for her rightful songwriting credit for a couple of years but later recalled: "It actually side-stepped me in the business because I got a reputation of being a trouble maker."
She made ends meet by singing in commercials. She recorded advertising jingles for Sears, Nehi soft drinks, Lincoln-Mercury, and AC Delco Spark Plugs. (13) “I was singing on a lot commercials in those days,” she explained, “and I made more money from them than I did from a best-selling record.” (14)
Disillusioned by the music business, Fontella, Bowie and their two children moved to France in 1969 as Bowie had a three-year stint with Art Ensemble with Fontella as part of the group. They had two more children before returning to the states in 1972. Returning to St. Louis, she also returned to the church while raising her four children. Fontella and Bowie divorced in 1978. She worked sporadically singing and playing on a number of gospel albums to make ends meet.
All the while, she still fought for her royalties. By the late 80s, her financial situation was dire. “Everything was going down,” she recalled. “We had a storm and a tree fell on my house. I had a battle with the insurance company.” Bass was left without a car. Then her telephone was turned off and her furnace broke down. During a conversation with her youngest daughter, Neuka on New Years Day of 1990, she heard a familiar voice on her television — it was her own. American Express licensed the song without Bass’ permission.
“When I heard Rescue Me, I knew it was time to let go of everything and start from scratch.” (14) She hired a lawyer, contacted MCA Records, which had acquired the rights to the Chess catalogue, and sued American Express and its advertising agency on the basis that she had not given her consent for her voice to be used.
The experience gave Bass the inspiration to set her life in order: it also motivated her to make queries over the commercial use of her recording of Rescue Me with the ultimate result a 1993 settlement with American Express and its advertising agency awarding Bass $50,000 plus punitive damages. (12) She also received past royalties from her song. "The lawyers were all there at this long table and then finally, the judge called us into his chambers. He turned to me and said, 'I've wanted to meet you for years!' and that was the end of the story! I finally got paid!" she said. (7) “I was down to my last $10 when an envelope arrived with the check,” she remembered. (14)
In 1995 she released No Ways Tired, which was nominated for a Grammy for best traditional soul gospel album. Her subsequent releases included Travellin’ in 2001 and All That You Give, a collaboration with the British electronic group the Cinematic Orchestra, in 2002.
Actor Robert Guillaume and Fontella in University City, Missouri on May 21, 2000 enjoying a moment before their enshrinement in the St. Louis Walk Of Fame.
Photo courtesy of Bill Greenblatt/Newsmakers/Getty Images.
As the years passed, there was a renewed appreciation for her work. On May 21, 2000, Fontella was inducted in the St. Louis Walk Of Fame. She was featured on the PBS Special and accompanying DVD, Soul Celebration. Soul Spectacular recorded live at Heinz Hall in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during November of 2001.
In the 2000s, she toured Europe with her younger brother, David Peaston until she fell ill. During her last years, she struggled with deteriorating health. Bass survived breast cancer, a series of strokes beginning in 2005, and also had a leg amputated. On December 26, 2012, she died at a St. Louis hospital from complications of a heart attack suffered earlier in the month. She was 72. (12)
Fontella performed live on Shindig! November 6, 1965. Interesting to note, she was backed vocally by the Blossoms, a group that featured Darlene Love (that’s her in the center).
Fontella was among a number of acts on R&B 40: A Soul Spectacular. The enthusiastic Pittsburgh crowd keeps the memory of the song as fresh as the day it was recorded.
2) Meta Filter Community weblog, All that you give: Fontella Bass rescues herself, July 30, 2017, Link.
3) Michael D. Sorkin, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Fontella Bass dies; singer of “Rescue Me” was a hit in U.S. and a bigger hit in Europe. December 27, 2012. Link.
4) John Pareles, The New York Times, Pop/Jazz: A Family of Gospel Singers, January 13, 1989, Link.
5) Michael Jack Kirby, Way Back Attack, Fontella Bass Rescue Me, Link.
6) Pierre Perrone, The Independent, Fontella Bass: Singer famed for her powerful interpretation of the million-seller 'Rescue Me', December 28, 2012, Link.
7) Kit O’Toole, Blinded By Sound, DeepSoul: Fontella Bass – “Rescue Me,” January 15, 2013, Link.
8) Joel Whitburn, Top R&B Singles 1942-1999, Page 23.
9) Joel Whitburn, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Page 41.
10) Steve Dougherty, People Magazine, June 19, 1995.
11) SongFacts, Rescue Me by Fontella Bass, Link.
12) Wikipedia, Fontella Bass, Link.
13) Musicianguide.com, Fontella Bass Biography, Link.
14) Michael Ryan, The Tuscaloosa News, My Song Rescued Me, November 25, 1995, Link.
Fontella in 1966.
Photo courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.
© 2019 Jerry Reuss